Back in September, much was made about changes approved at the IIHF's Semi-Annual Congress in Slovenia regarding the IIHF Men's Championships, and how an extra game would be added in lieu of the qualification round would be eliminated. What didn't get a lot of press were the format changes for the levels below the championship division. While the changes will not be formally approved until May, when the General Congress meets while all the nations gather for the Men's World Championships in Slovakia, the results of the tournaments this year will have an extra twist to them. And these changes will be constant for the entire program of IIHF Championships, so the U20's will be the first level affected.
For several years now, the IIHF has ran two equal tournaments that make up the "Division 1" level. Placement in the A or B groups of Div. 1 has not mattered: the winner of each tournament earned promotion to the championship level, and the last place finisher has been relegated. What this has done, though, is mean that the 11th place team has to face the 21st or 22nd place team at some point, while they won't play the 12th or 13th place teams that year. It's left the tournaments to be pretty uncompetitive, as there is quite a drop off about every five or so placings in the world at the junior level. This will change next year... Div. 1A in U20 will essentially be teams ranked 11-16 next season, while Div. 1B will be between teams 17-22. Here's how the IIHF press release explains it (linked above), though note it is for the Men's World Championships as Div. 1A starts at #17:
The congress was informed about new competition format for all IIHF World Championship categories, pertaining to Divisions I and below. The format will be vertical as opposed to horizontal. For example: On the Division I men’s level the A Group will consist of teams ranked 17-22 while the B Group will consist of teams ranked 23-28. Promotion to the top division will only be conducted from the A Group. The winner from the B Group will be promoted to the A Group.
This means for this year's Div 1A and Div. 1B U20 tournaments there will be another relegation level of sorts: you must finish at least 3rd in your Group, or else you will be put in the Div. 1B group next year. The top two teams from Div. 1A will be promoted to the Championship level, but below that level, there will only be one promotion and one relegation between divisions.
This could change in time.
The championship level has been under criticism for lopsided games, like last year's 16-0 win by Canada over Latvia to open the tournament. There were proposals, chiefly from TSN's Bob Mackenzie, to do a similar breakdown of divisions at the Championship level. That part has not happened yet, but the format below the top 10 has changed to reflect this line of thinking. To explain how this might work, the division lineup for this year's top division would be as follows:
|Rank||Group A||Rank||Group B|
In this, there would be a round robin tournament to determine placing amongst each Group, and the winner of Group B would advance to the Championship Playoff round, while the 7-10 would battle for relegation. The games would be more competitive, despite the surprising presence of Russia in Group B and Switzerland in Group A if this were to take place this year. Assuming Russia advances out of Group B, they would play the country that placed 3rd in the Group A round robin, and the playoffs would be unchanged. The two quarterfinal losers would play a 5th vs. 6th place game, which does exist currently, to determine who would participate in Group A the next year.
This would probably make it harder for a team like Switzerland to go on a run like they did last year, jumping from the #9 ranked team to #4. But the action would be more competitive from the start of the tournament. As for those who want to see the lesser teams play the better ones as some sort of measuring stick, the pre-tournament exhibitions could provide that opportunity to a lesser degree. And just like the one team promotion/relegation from each group, they could do the same, and only relegate the 10th place team while promoting the winner of Div. 1A.
It should also be noted that it would still technically be possible for a team to finish 11th (or 12th if they keep the two up/two down method) to finish 1st the next year: they would have to win Group B and then 3 playoff games vs. Group A teams to do so. But it would prevent Switzerland, by virtue of their 4th place run last year, from being relegated to Division 1 next year.
Whatever the case, the games at the Div. 1A and Div. 1B level will be more fiercely fought as a result of the pending changes. Placing 3rd will not just be a consolation bronze: it will be the same as avoiding relegation. For Slovenia, playing the Div. 1B tournament on home soil might help them repeat their 3rd place showing last year against a tough group that includes Denmark, Austria, and Kazakhstan.
For more on the Div. 1A, 1B, 2A, and 2B groups this year, check out this post from earlier in the week.